NBA Playoffs: Does Being the Top Seed Actually Matter for Boston or Cleveland?

Looking at the numbers and potential matchups, finishing second in the Eastern Conference may actually benefit the Cavaliers.

It's finally happened: the Boston Celtics have overtaken the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Cavs dropped a half-game back of the Celtics with a lopsided 103-74 loss to the San Antonio Spurs last night. If the playoffs were to start today, the Celtics would hold home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Can Boston hold off the Cavs and finish as the top seed? And does it even matter which team heads into the postseason as the 1 seed?

Let's take a look.

Who Will It Be?

To answer the first question, the Celtics are more than capable of maintaining their slim edge on Cleveland, according to our projections. After the Cavs' most recent loss, we have them projected for a record of 52.2-29.8. As for the Celtics, at 52.7-29.3, they have a very appropriate half-game lead by our math.

With so few games remaining, strength of schedule is a big factor. Using nERD -- our in-house metric that is predictive of a team's ultimate winning percentage -- we can compare the average difficulty of each of Boston's and Cleveland's remaining schedules as they come down the homestretch.

Cavaliers nERD nERD Celtics
at Bulls 46.5 51.9 Bucks
76ers 32.1 33.0 Magic
Pacers 48.0 39.8 at Knicks
Magic 33.0 58.9 Cavaliers
at Celtics 56.6 47.3 at Hawks
Hawks 47.3 54.1 at Hornets
at Hawks 47.3 27.9 Nets
at Heat 54.4 51.9 Bucks
Raptors 65.1 --- -------
Average 47.8 45.6 Average

Boston has a slightly easier schedule overall. They have one less road game and play three of the league's seven worst teams, according to our power rankings. Meanwhile, Cleveland has four road games to go, including one at Boston and one at Miami. And that's not to mention a tough finish against the Toronto Raptors, the league's fourth-best team by our advanced metrics.

But how does this all play into seeding directly? In other words, do the projections match up with the probability that the Celtics will, in fact, begin the Eastern Conference Playoffs as the 1 seed?

To answer that, take a look at the likelihood of each team obtaining the 1 seed before and after the Cavaliers' loss Monday night.

1 Seed Probability Before

1 Seed Probability After

So, the Celtics still don't have the edge, but it is looking like a very tight race to the finish between the two squads. Combined, they possess a 96.76% probability of landing in the 1 spot. Individually, the Cavaliers' chances for the top seed dropped more than 6% with last night's loss as, in turn, the Celtics' probability of getting the 1 seed increased nearly 5%.

Who Needs Home-Court Advantage the Most?

Because home-court advantage is the reward for earning a 1 seed, let's look at both teams' home-road splits to see who needs home-court advantage the most.

Win Percentage Cavaliers Celtics
Home Overall .777 .750
Road Overall .514 .553
Home vs East .762 .810
Road vs East .682 .609

For the totality of the season, Cleveland's a little better at home, and Boston's a little better on the road.

However, when we limit it to only Eastern Conference matchups, the script is flipped. The Celtics are superior at home, and the Cavaliers are just as superior to the Celtics on the road.

That tells us that the Celtics could probably use home-court advantage more than the Cavaliers, whose road performance against the East should come in handy if they are the 2 seed.

What About Matchups?

Using our seeding probabilities, there are three teams (Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers) with at least a 15% chance of heading into the Eastern Conference playoffs as the 8 seed. There are five teams (Milwaukee Bucks, Pacers, Atlanta Hawks, Bulls and Heat) with a 15% chance of obtaining the 7 seed.

When facing those teams, which squad -- Boston or Cleveland -- has been better to this point in the regular season?

Win Percentage Cavaliers Celtics
vs Potential 8 Seeds .333 .818
vs Potential 7 Seeds .467 .786

Celtics, Celtics, Celtics, Celtics! It's all Celtics.

According to their win percentage against these teams, Boston should be a heavy favorite in their first-round matchup from either the 1 or 2 slot.

We can't say the same for the Cavs. It turns out they have been absolutely dreadful against potential 7 and 8 seeds. What it will all boil down to for them is the matchup itself.

In three games against the Heat, the current 8 seed, the Cavaliers have particularly struggled. When facing LeBron James' former team, Cleveland is 1-2 on the season and has scored just 101.3 points per game -- 8.7 below their season average. When we compare that to their regular-season performance against the Pacers, the current 7 seed, you'd have to think the Cavaliers may actually prefer the 2 seed as they're 3-1 versus Indiana and have scored 112.7 points per game in those four contests.

What if we dig deeper into the second round and those potential matchups? Here, because there is a little bit of overlap with the 7 and 8 seeds, we'll narrow it down to the current seedings (by standings and tiebreakers), 3 through 6, and look at which teams are better by way of nERD.


If whichever team that wins the 1 seed gets through their first-round matchup, they'll be set to face the winner of a series between the Raptors and Hawks, as it stands now.

If the Raptors win, it could be a very tough series for either Boston or Cleveland. The Raptors' nERD of 65.1 is better than that of both the Cavaliers' (58.9) and Celtics' (56.6). However, whereas Toronto is 3-1 against Boston this season, they're 0-3 in three games against Cleveland. If the Hawks manage the upset, nERD suggests that Boston and Cleveland should be able to dispose of Atlanta in the second round.

As a 2 seed, a winner would get either the 3-seeded Washington Wizards or 6-seeded Bucks. Both teams are lower in our power rankings, according to nERD, but the Wizards could present a problem for the Celtics. The two teams have split four regular-season meetings, and the Celtics have taken their lone matchup with the Bucks. As for Cleveland, they're 3-1 against the Bucks and 2-1 against the Wizards on the year.


The psychology behind being the top dog is unquantifiable. It could be very important for all we know. And we know that home-court advantage is generally important to playoff-bound teams, though it differs from team to team.

All things considered, though, the Cavaliers should be more than alright with getting the 2 seed -- it might even be the better option, per the numbers. They match up slightly better with the likely 7 seeds, have been better against possible second-round opponents and are better than the Celtics on the road. To a point, home-court isn't as important for them.

For the Celtics, home-court against conference foes appears to be more significant. By matchup, however, they've been very good against potential 7 and 8 seeds and, from either spot, will likely face a team in the second round that has presented problems for them so far this season -- so seed shouldn't matter much until further down the line.

All in all, it may be better for both teams if current positions hold, even if it goes against conventional belief.